Headless CMS explained

Learn about headless CMS, find examples of how it's used, benefits, tradeoffs, and more.

What is a headless CMS?

A headless CMS is a content management system in which the content (the “body”) is separated or decoupled from where the content is presented (the “head”). Content is created using a dashboard and content is delivered using an API. By exposing an API to deliver content, a headless CMS does not restrict content to a single connected frontend “head” but rather enables content to be delivered to any number of websites or apps.

headless cms

What does "headless" mean?

The term "headless" refers to headless software in which a system comes without a frontend piece of the architecture, resulting in an increased level of flexibility. A CMS can be considered headless when it comes without the frontend presentation “head” (usullay a website), and only provides a dashboard to create content and an API to deliver the content. This enables the flexibility of the content to be delivered to multiple frontend “head”s, regardless of their use case or underlying technology.

How does a headless CMS work?

A headless CMS is comprised of a content creation dashboard and a content delivery API.

1. Content creation dashboard
The headless CMS dashboard interface enables teams to collaborate around content creation. Either a hosted service, or self-hosted application, it provides an interface to manage content, upload media assets, and create publishing workflows.

2. Content delivery API
The headless CMS API enables developers to deliver content to any website or app. This is where headless CMS makes a compelling case for teams that want more flexibility in their content delivery. Instead of being locked into a rigid coupled frontend, a headless CMS enables content to be freely deliverd to any location.

What is an API?

An API (application programming interface) is the way internet-connected services communicate with one another over a network. It uses HTTP endpoints which provide a dataset (commonly JSON) to be consumed or updated. Some examples of API protocols include legacy methods like SOAP and RSS, as well as more modern approaches like REST and GraphQL. (Explore a fun RESTful API)

How does headless CMS use an API?
A headless CMS provides an API to deliver content to frontend applications. By providing an API layer, the headless CMS ensures that the content can be delivered to any website or application. This is in contrast to a traditional CMS which locks you into a single frontend website.

Headless CMS vs traditional CMS

Traditional CMSs (WordPress, Drupal, etc.) were developed in a time (early 2000s) when content only needed to be managed for a single website. They commonly came with open source code that a developer could install and run on a server. Along with the installation, came the continued maintenance of a content and user management database, server side codebase, media management, and more. After configuring and maintaining the CMS, without an API, there was usually only one place the content could go: to a single website.

Traditional CMS

A traditional CMS keeps content locked into a single website.

Changing landscape
The digital landscape has changed a lot since the early 2000s. With the proliferation of internet-connected devices (mobile, AR/VR, IoT, etc.) companies are needing content to be delivered at scale with more control and flexibility. Companies with content locked in a traditional CMS are finding themselves locked in and left behind.

Enter headless CMS
By using a headless CMS, companies can write their content once and deliver it anywhere. Their content is no longer locked into a single website, it can now be freely delivered to any website or app, building relationships with customers wherever they are. Plus content is future-ready to meet customers in any new emergent digital location.

Headless CMS

A headless CMS frees content to be deployed to any website or app.

Traditional CMSHeadless CMS
TechnologyMonolithic, hosted and maintained by youBest-in-class services, hosted and maintained for you
ScalabilityLimited, one-to-oneLimitless, one-to-many
SecuritySelf-managedManaged for you
Developer ExperienceLocked in frontendFlexible, bring your own frontend

What about decoupled CMS?
A decoupled CMS is a traditional CMS that includes a connected frontend but also includes an API that can be used to deliver content to other websites or apps. This is more of a hybrid model that, with a self-hosted CMS, still comes with the responsibility to maintain the CMS infrastructure.

Why use a headless CMS?

Many teams are choosing to use a headless CMS because it affords them considerable time and cost savings. By avoiding the pain and time spent building and maintaining their own CMS, teams are able to focus on what really matters: building great content and user experiences.

Benefits of a headless CMS

Some benefits of a headless CMS include:

  1. Less infrastructure for developers to maintain
  2. Increased collaboration between developers and content creators
  3. Content scalability: write once, deploy anywhere
  4. Enhanced security
  5. Optimization out-of-the-box

Is headless CMS the right choice for my project?

If you answer yes to any one or a few of these questions, a headless CMS may be the right choice for you.

As a developer

  1. Are you building a website or app that requires content management using an intuitive dashboard interface?
  2. Would you rather avoid building and maintaining your own CMS infrastructure and simply "plug in" to a CMS that has flexible content modeling, global CDN caching, asset management, and image optimization?
  3. Do you want the freedom to build your application using the tools that you want to use, and not one required by a CMS?
  4. Do you want to store your content in a universal JSON format, future-proofing your application for any frontend technology changes?

As a content creator

  1. Do you want to manage content in an easy-to-use dashboard interface?
  2. Do you have developers on your team that can help you set up content models and integrate the content into your website or app?
  3. Do you want to work in parallel with your developers to build content-powered projects faster?

As a business owner or company

  1. Do you have both developers and content creators on your team that want powerful API tools, the freedom to choose their own tech stack, and an easy-to-use dashboard for creating content?
  2. Do you want to avoid the pain, time consumption, and tech debt that comes with managing your own CMS infrastructure? Would you rather outsource this service to a dedicated company focused on optimizing this part of your business?
  3. Do you need content that can be delivered to multiple locations? (Website, app, microsites, automation workflows, etc?)
  4. Do you want the convenience of one login to manage multiple projects with granular user roles and permissions for your team?

Headless CMS use cases

Some common use cases for headless CMS include websites, blogs, mobile apps, and ecommerce. Learn more about companies using a headless CMS to drive their project and business goals.

Cosmic headless CMS

As one of the longest-running headless CMS solutions on the market, Cosmic has played a big role in the evolution of content management into the era of headless CMS. Cosmic is committed to providing the best tools for developers, content creators, and team leaders to facilitate highly effective project collaboration.

For developers
Cosmic provides developers with powerful tools to build content-driven applications. Leave the infrastructure behind and get started in minutes with Cosmic’s powerful API tools and resources. Read the Cosmic documentation.

For content creators
Cosmic is not just built for developers, content creators will find Cosmic’s approach to the content creation process intuitive and delightful. Browse content creation features.

For team leaders
Business goals move faster when content moves faster. By giving each team member what they need to succeed, Cosmic facilitates efficient team collaboration. Projects are built faster and shipped to customers sooner. The end result is customers can engage with your company faster and with an optimized content experience on a global scale. Contact us to get a custom quote for your project.

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